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The high-flying heartfelt hilarity of ‘Shazam’

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It’s no secret that DC Comics and their characters have been playing catch-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the better part of a decade. Sure, DC cornered the early market on superhero cinema as high art (thanks almost entirely to Christopher Nolan), but their overall success lagged considerably.

One of the biggest complaints has been about tone. Specifically, that DC learned the wrong lessons from Nolan’s achievements and focused on gritty grimdarkness in its subsequent films. Sure, that works when you’ve got a dark-by-design character like Batman being brought forth by a brilliant actor and a transcendent filmmaker, but otherwise? Not so much.

The last couple of years have seen a course correction of sorts, with both “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” serving to show what can happen if these films are made with a different goal. And now, we get “Shazam!”, yet another big step in the right direction.

“Shazam!” is easily the most joyful of the DC offerings to date. It is pure escapist fantasy, distilling the essence of the wish fulfillment that is at the core of why so many of us fell in love with comic books in the first place. It is goofy and charming, wearing its dorkiness with pride. And the fact that it features a less well-known character (one who once shared a name with the Marvel character who just had a movie of her own hit theaters a few weeks ago) is just the icing on the cake.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel, “Driven to Dance”) is a troubled kid. He spends his time running away from foster homes and doing whatever it takes to try to track down the mother from whom he was separated as a toddler. One brush with the law too many leaves him with one final chance – a chance granted him by a couple that runs a group home there in Philadelphia.

Victor (Cooper Andrews, “Den of Thieves”) and Rosa (Marta Milans, “Asher”) bring Billy to the home, where he meets his fellow foster kids. There’s the high-achieving Mary (Grace Fulton, “Vampire Dad”), hardcore gamer Eugene (Ian Chen, TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”), largely silent Pedro (Jovan Armand, TV’s “The Middle”) and bubbly lovebug Darla (Faithe Herman, TV’s “This is Us”). Billy’s new roommate is Freddie Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer, “Beautiful Boy”), a superhero obsessive with a limp and a sarcastic streak a mile wide.

Billy’s plan is to keep these new people at a distance, but when he defends Freddie from some bullies and has to make his escape, he finds himself transported to a mysterious cavern where he meets a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, “Captain Marvel”). Shazam has been seeking a champion to whom he might pass on his magical abilities; circumstances leave him with little choice but to bestow this gift to Billy. By saying the wizard’s name, Billy becomes a new Shazam (Zachary Levi, “Office Uprising”), possessed of a wide variety of superhuman powers.

The urgency springs from the actions of one Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong, “Stockholm”). Years earlier, Sivana was called to Shazam’s lair, only to be deemed unworthy of the power the wizard offered. Sivana devoted his life from that moment forward to unlocking the door to Shazam’s realm and taking command of the evil entities guarded by the wizard – and eventually, he succeeded.

The new Shazam hasn’t a clue how to utilize his new abilities, and so he seeks out Freddie, whose encyclopedic knowledge of superheroics proves quite handy in helping Billy/Shazam figure out how to use his powers. However, Dr. Sivana has plans of his own for the new champion’s power, leaving Billy with little choice but to figure out how to be a hero – and fast. Because if he doesn’t, he’s not the only one who will suffer the consequences.

First things first – it might sound like “Shazam!” is basically “Big” with superheroes. That’s because that’s pretty much what it is. And honestly, it’s wonderful. Placing a kid at the controls of what is essentially a Superman analogue works brilliantly; it’s a marvelous rendering of the fantasy at the heart of our affection for comic books.

It’s also wildly funny, thanks to a great script by Henry Gayden and some absolutely killer performances. The conceit leaves plenty of room for both physical comedy and verbal sniping; the combination of slapstick and wit makes this easily the funniest DCEU movie we’ve seen (and that even counts some of the unintentionally funny offerings – they know who they are).

Director David F. Sandberg made his bones making horror movies, but the brightly-colored bombast, quippy dialogue and explosive action in “Shazam!” is the work of a filmmaker comfortable with his source material. Handing the keys of these big superhero films to relatively inexperienced directors has been a mixed bag, but Sandberg’s a big win.

The performances are excellent across the board, but the real stars are Levi, Strong, Grazer and to a lesser extent Angel. I’ll be the first to admit that I doubted Levi’s ability to pull off a superhero, but he managed the whole 14-year-old-in-an-adult-body thing beautifully. He managed to be guileless and charming in the best way. Strong is as engaging a villain as we’ve seen in any of these superhero offerings, basing his unrelenting evil in a genuine hurt. He’s great. Angel’s basically playing half a role, but he’s still able to get us to connect and empathize with Billy. And maybe the most entertaining performance of all comes from Grazer, who is almost preternaturally talented for his age; he bears a huge narrative load with ease and is unfailingly funny and sharp and emotionally engaged. He’s going to be in our lives for a LONG time.

“Shazam!” is the perfect antidote to the bleakness of most DC film offerings and a surprisingly effective counterpoint to the unceasing world-building of the MCU. It checks all the superhero boxes while also having a spirit that is undeniably its own. Action-packed, self-aware and legitimately funny, “Shazam!” is a high-flying delight.

[5 out of 5]

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